Tracy Isaacs expresses scepticism about the “skinny pill” online craze.
A few weeks ago someone forwarded me a link to an article about a “mysterious skinny pill” that was “taking Canada by storm.” Always the skeptic, I held off on following the link and then forgot about it entirely. By the time I went back to it, the link led nowhere—as mysterious as the pill it touts.
The dead-end link didn’t surprise me at all. More often than not, any site that turns up when I put “skinny pill” into my search engine is a professional-looking page with all sorts of reports and testimonials, dramatic before and after shots of successful users, multiple references to doctors, research findings, and a few obligatory tables and charts (that may or may not actually be from published research).
The other thing these sites have in common is that above the dramatic, eye-catching headline, in smaller, less eye-catching typeface, is the word “Advertisement.” I’m hesitant even to link to ads for bogus weight-loss products, but if you would like to see what these ads look like, you can put “skinny pill takes country by storm” or “daily health tips online” into your search engine.*
So what is this “skinny pill” these ads are trying to hock? High on the list of its ingredients are Garcinia Cambognia, raspberry ketones, green coffee bean extract, fad ingredients that have been endorsed by “America’s favorite doctor” who shall remain nameless. (I have blogged about these ingredients and the appeal to authority that gives them credibility here.)
The trouble, if you want to call it “trouble,” is that there is no magic pill that will make you skinny. Yes, the advertisements make it seem as if this is the be-all, end-all solution. They cite “research” from reputable places like Georgetown Medical School that says “men and women who took the Garcinia Cambogia supplement for 8 weeks lost an average of 16.5 pounds without additional diet or exercise.” Normally I would cite research, but since the relevant links are in ads that I don’t think deserve traffic, I am not providing them.
Not only that, the same ad says: researchers from “the Department of Laboratory Medicine” (somewhere not specified) found that people who took the supplement “experienced a significant decline in cravings for sweets and other foods high in carbohydrates – likely due to the nutrient’s positive effect on insulin and blood sugar counts.” It all sounds so scientific.
I’m not a medical researcher, but I do know a thing or two about dieting and weight loss. Here’s my lifetime of experience in a nutshell: (1) losing weight is much easier than keeping it off and (2) there is no magic pill.
So what’s the problem with skinny pills? Won’t they help us lose weight? First, let’s remember that the only available information that supports their dramatic success can be found in ads dressed up as info-pages and on segments of popular afternoon television shows.
Your family doctor is not likely to send you off on a weight loss program in which one of these “supplements” takes centre stage as the secret ingredient that will change everything. Why not? Because it will not change everything. A healthy, well-rounded diet and regular physical activity remain the two best strategies for long-term good health. We don’t even need doctors to tell us that.
Second, the ads give us no data about long-term results. In a world where the vast majority of people who lose weight gain it (and often more) back within five years, you will not convince me about anything without showing me the five-year success rate.
The upshot is that these products and the sites that attempt to pawn them off on the despairing yet hopeful among us are scams. The ads prey on our individual and collective desperation to lose weight in a fat-phobic world. Instead of focusing on a broader set of metrics for good health, we have become so fixated on dieting for weight loss as the ultimate “strategy” for dramatic transformation that we are willing to try anything.
Skinny pills, snake oil – they are of apiece, both to be avoided.
Tracy Isaacs is Professor with a joint appointment in the Departments of Philosophy and Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at Western University and co-founder of the blog Fit Is a Feminist Issue. @TracyLIsaacs @FitFeminists
*Some may wonder about my decision not to link to the ads, given that I am writing about them. I’ve developed a personal policy concerning links over the past few years of blogging about fitness issues. The policy is that I do not provide easy access to websites that I believe to be bogus (such as these ads) or dangerous (for example, links to pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia “lifestyle” websites) even though I write about them in a critical way. It is very easy for people to find these things on-line if they are really interested, but I do not wish to make it any easier by offering the links myself.